Obituary: Peter Spinney, pilot, engineer and inventor

Peter Michael Spinney, jet pilot, engineer and inventor who flew early Meteors for RAF. Picture: ContributedPeter Michael Spinney, jet pilot, engineer and inventor who flew early Meteors for RAF. Picture: Contributed
Peter Michael Spinney, jet pilot, engineer and inventor who flew early Meteors for RAF. Picture: Contributed
Born: 12 March,1930. Died: 2 Februrary, 2016, aged 86.

Peter Spinney, who has died aged 86, was one of a new breed of talented young graduates that emerged from the austerity of the Second World War with a driving ambition to help rebuild Britain as a modern, technology-driven, confident nation. In his case, it was to be in refrigeration engineering where he became the architect of the first refrigerated truck to be designed in Scotland, the inventor of an automatic ice making plant that transformed working conditions in hot countries, and a plethora of other ideas and innovations that would find an application at home, or be suffocated at birth by the patent system.

He was fortunate to even make it into the engineering profession, having cheated death on numerous occasions as a Pilot Officer with 603 City of Edinburgh Squadron, where he flew the first Gloster Meteor jets.

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Fast, lethal and primitive, these jets were capable of more than 600mph. In the right hands, they could be flown hard and fast. In the wrong hands, they accounted for the loss of many lives either from pilot error, mechanical failure or colleague mistakes. Peter was called up to do his national service in the RAF after studying engineering at Cambridge University.

He was top cadet at his flying school and needed every scrap of his natural talent to stay alive. On one occasion, his plane went into an instant and steep dive. Repeated checks showed the systems were working perfectly then, thinking out of the box, he realised his glove had trapped the aerolon lever, forcing the jet towards earth.

On another occasion, a fierce electrical storm blew all his instruments, he was very low on fuel, flying in thick cloud, and completely disoriented. He had enough fuel for one stab at finding the airfield, the wrong decision would see a horrendous crash. Running over calculations in his head, he beton banking right and through a gap in the clouds the runway reared up in front of him.

He also used his officer status in more creative ways.

He once received a call from his parents to say they were in London and would be lunching at the Directors Club whereupon he ordered his plane to be fuelled up, flew to Biggin Hill and arrived in time for starters. And when his mother and sister were staying at Cairndow in Argyll he headed up the Rest and be Thankful for a fly-past then rushed back to base before being found out.

Just a few years ago he was instrumental in locating and repatriating the 603 Squadron Gloster Meteor training jet to a new home in Montrose Air Museum.

After the RAF, Peter joined the well-known Glasgow firm of Sterne Refrigeration, where he was offered a student apprenticeship by Peter Brown, who subsequently became a lifelong friend. Prior to Sterne, he was offered but declined the opportunity to join the rapidly expanding Spinneys retail chain in the Middle East.

Founded by his father in Alexandria in 1928, Spinneys had expanded into Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, and Cyprus. It prospers today, with many supermarkets and stores in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and is known as the Waitrose of the Middle East. Peter forsook that opportunity, preferring to pursue his love of engineering, innovation and problem solving. The outcome of that was the design and build of one of the very first refrigerated trucks, with the prototype hauling a cargo of whisky to Moscow. It worked perfectly and became the template for the modern refrigerated truck.

After leaving Sterne, he branched out on his own, launching SIEG, an industrial export business that sold refrigeration equipment, systems, maintenance and consultancy across the Middle East and North Africa. During this time he invented an automatic on-site ice making plant that transformed work in remote, hot, areas. The business prospered and he travelled far and wide, forging many lifelong friendships with clients and contacts across the Arabic world.

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After SIEG, Peter set up as a consultant and continued advising clients into his 80s.

Born at the Scottish Missionary Hospital in Nazareth on 12 January 1930 to a Scots’ mother from Edinburgh (Cecil Joan Glegg), and an English father (Rawdon Spinney), Peter and his siblings, Neville and Buffy (Viscountess Slim), spent the war years with their maternal grand-parents at Chirnside, in Berwickshire.

From there he attended Dalhousie Prep School in Lothian, and then to Sedbergh School in Cumbria, where he developed a passion for rifle shooting, leading to Bisley, a Blue at Cambridge University and represented Scotland. He met his wife, Irene, during a chance encounter in St Georges Cross in Glasgow when he was commuting from Edinburgh to Sterne. She was riding a Lambretta, and like Peter, had turned her back on a thriving family business, preferring a career as a milliner rather than leading the Tullis laundry manufacturing business in Clydebank.

In later years he would take up a campaigning role for the Association of British Drivers, and becoming chair of Mugdock Community Council. In between planning applications and dealing with local issues, he would regularly write to the press, bemoaning the incompetence of politicians, questioning the conduct of public bodies and their officials, and challenging the rhetoric of the global warming lobby.

He is survived by his wife Irene, sister Buffy, son Ian, daughter-in-law Monica and grand-daughters Sofia and Rosa.

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